Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:07 pm on 27th June 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Cavendish of Little Venice Baroness Cavendish of Little Venice Conservative 9:07 pm, 27th June 2017

My Lords, there are many aspects of the gracious Speech that I would have liked to speak on, but I decided to choose Islamist extremism, which many other noble Lords have already addressed. I worked on this in the Policy Unit in Downing Street and I hope that I can make a few brief and constructive points on it. In her excellent opening speech the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, rightly said that the Government’s counter- extremism strategy must ensure that our pluralistic values flourish. The noble Lord, Lord Rana, gave a very eloquent testimony of his own experiences of terror in various parts of the world. The noble Baroness also pointed to the very welcome increase in CT spend over the last few years. However, we all know that the number of subjects of interest to the security services is growing at an exponential rate. That creates an enormous challenge, as we have seen in recent tragic events.

I believe that the battle against Islamist extremism is the battle of my generation. We are up against an ideology that is as brutal as fascism—and unlike fascism it cloaks itself in religion. That is one of the reasons why it has been particularly difficult to challenge it in this country. As we all know, this ideology seeks to persuade Muslims that it represents the purest form of Islam, and is utterly incompatible with our values in the West. There are a number of organisations in this country which seek to convince normal, law-abiding people that the West seeks to destroy the Muslim ummah. That is believed by far too many people in some of our communities.

As many other noble Lords have said, this is not, of course, the Islam which the majority of law-abiding people in this country follow and practise. However, when the terrorists self-identify as Muslims and cloak themselves in ideology and theology at the same time, I have to slightly disagree with the point made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, as I think that we need to be very careful about denying all links. To do that is to disempower the moderate reformers who are campaigning every day against the fusing of this religion and politics, and who are challenging the scriptural basis that the extremists claim. Theirs will be the most important voices in providing an alternative narrative to our British teenagers, some of whom are attracted by this potent combination of, if you like, an eighth-century world view with 21st-century technology. Many of those moderate campaigners, whom only a few in this House will have heard of and very few of the public will know of, are precisely the people who would like us all to be perhaps a little more honest and back them more strongly in confronting the sources of the ideology, because there are some very plausible voices—make no mistake—on the other side. There are some very plausible organisations that are just inside the law but which we perhaps need to do more to confront.

This brings me to the commission for countering extremism that was mentioned in the gracious Speech. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said that this commission will be powerful. I hope that it will be powerful in the right way. We do not yet know, of course, whether it will be a full-scale legislative vehicle. We do not know whether it will be based in the Home Office or DCLG. I am slightly disappointed to hear that its work is not expected to start until next April: I hope that that can be accelerated. It is clearly worth taking time, though, to get the terms of reference right. Members of this House know probably better than anyone that commissions can have impact only if they draw on relatively narrow terms of reference.

I will make only one point about the terms of reference. This commission could encompass a million things and there will be many views about what it should do. However, I would take as my starting point the speech made by the Prime Minister on 4 June. I was struck by her saying that civil society needed to have some difficult and embarrassing conversations to root out extremism. I do not think that that was something she said lightly. For when I look back on the last six years of government trying to tackle Islamist extremism—successive Governments have gradually tried to grip this issue—what strikes me that the most successful initiatives which have most empowered the moderates have been those which have not shirked the difficult conversation.

The review of Prevent undertaken by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, in 2011, when he challenged the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, is one example. Peter Clarke’s report on Birmingham will be another. The Ian Acheson review into extremism in prisons will be another. Finally, I mention Louise Casey’s 2016 review into integration, with which I was involved. I strongly recommend that its recommendations, particularly on schools and women’s rights, are looked at very seriously, I hope by the commission and if not in some other way, because we do not have the luxury of time to get on with some recommendations which I think would command cross-party support.

The Government need to challenge themselves, too. We need to know why Muslims who warned about Salman Abedi in Manchester apparently were not heeded. In asking difficult questions and engendering difficult conversations, a commission should ask itself why other people do not report to the authorities. That is actually not always for the reasons one might assume. It can also be because they fear that they will not be listened to.

I thank noble Lords for listening. I hope that this commission can be accelerated, as I said—but, more fundamentally, that it will do its best to have an honest debate.